After 36 years in office, Grainger County Property Assessor Johnny Morgan has retired.
He said he first announced his candidacy for the office in November or December of 1983. He said when he made the decision to run for the office, he hadn’t imagined he would serve so many years. He said he had thought he might serve eight years, but had no idea it would be 36 years.
Morgan said he had worked at the Farmer’s Co-op for about seven years and Horace Hammer, who had been elected Property Assessor in 1976 and was re-elected in 1980, came to the Co-op and Morgan congratulated him for winning another term. Hammer suggested Morgan run for the office but Morgan said he didn’t think he would be interested. During the next four years, Morgan said he gave the idea more thought. He said he felt that, although he enjoyed his job at the Co-op, he couldn’t see any opportunity for career advancement.
He said he called Hammer and asked him if he planned to seek the office of property assessor again. Hammer told him he didn’t plan to, and said he would help Morgan any way he could if he chose to run. That was Friday. Morgan told Hammer he would call him Monday and let him know what he had decided.
Morgan said he faced three opponents in that first primary election, and one opponent in the general election. It was 2000 before he faced opposition again. In 2000 he said he had opposition in the primary, but none in the general election. Twelve years later, in 2012, he had two opponents in the primary and none in the general election. In 2016, he faced one opponent in the primary and one in the general election.
When Morgan first took office in 1984, it was a reappraisal year.Morgan said the county had been reappraised in 1970 by Honeycutt and Associates, but in 1984 the State conducted the reappraisal of properties.
Morgan said he had spent a lot of time at the property assessor’s office after winning the primary election and felt he had learned a lot about what he would be doing when he took office. But, he said, property values had increased about 400 percent between 1970 and 1984.
He said around the same time as the reappraisals, the county had also recently begun operating a landfill. The State also ruled rescue squads couldn’t conduct transports to hospitals and the county had started its own ambulance service. Because of all the additional expenses, the county raised the tax rate about 30 cents above the property tax rate certified by the State.
Morgan said, “People lined up around the corner down there, and of course I didn’t know what to tell them. I hadn’t been involved in all of it, you know. And I’d say, ‘Well, the State did this,’ and they’d say, ‘We didn’t vote for the State, we voted for you.’”
He said during that first year he wished a thousand times he was back at the Co-op.
“But, after I made it through the first year, and the second year wasn’t as bad because the shock was worn off for most people… I kinda got into it.”
He said the next reappraisal was held in 1992, because the State changed the reappraisal schedule from every 10 years to every six years. He said that reappraisal went much better, and the rate didn’t change as much.
“I just kept running and people kept being better to me than I deserved, and I made it through nine primaries and nine generals. I was very fortunate. I never took it for granted. People were just always good to me,” Morgan said.
Morgan said the county can’t use property reappraisal to increase revenue, so the State certifies a tax rate that brings in the same amount of revenue as the previous year, with the exception of new construction properties. The first year following reappraisal of properties, the State sets the tax rate, and the county must hold two public hearings to be able to raise the rate above the State-certified rate.
Morgan said property values are set based on the area in which they are located. He said each area has its own code, and the sale of properties in a particular area are used to figure an average price-per-acre, or price-per-square-foot for houses, and those figures are used to set the values for properties in that area. He said individual areas may increase or decrease in value during reappraisal.
Morgan said if values are set too high, people will come in to dispute the value. He said now everything can be seen from the air, and adjustments may be made based on observations of the property.
Morgan said he opted to operate under a five-year reappraisal plan. Under that plan, the office is required to onsite inspect 25 percent of the county each year, and during the fifth year the State figures the property values. He said the State used to come in every three months to “monitor” the office, but now with advances in technology, they monitor the local office via computer. The State still checks quarterly to be sure the requirement for onsite inspection of 25 percent of the county is being performed.
Morgan said the biggest change he’s experienced during his time in office was when they received their first computer. The office received its first computer in 1988 or 1989. He said all changes made in the office previously had to be sent to Nashville, and then might have to be sent back and forth several times before the information was recorded correctly. He said the computer helped remedy a lot of that back and forth between the local office and the State.
He said when he first came into office, there were approximately 9,200 parcels in the county, and now there are just under 17,000 parcels. He said the county was still a farming county when he took office, and now most of the farms have been subdivided.
Most of the records in the office are now computerized, but they still maintain a catalog of appraisal cards which are used during onsite inspections.
Morgan said he has had only two deputy assessors during his time in office,
“That’s one of the things that’s helped me. In 36 years, I’ve only had two deputy assessors,” he said.
Karen Farmer worked in the office as deputy assessor when he was first elected, and worked in the office more than 17 years. Donna Shelton, who was elected property assessor in August and took office September 1, has worked in the office more than 18 years.
Morgan hasn’t spent his time in the last 36 years only keeping up with Grainger County properties. He was also an avid softball player. He preferred to play modified pitch, and said his team went to a lot of national tournaments.
“I did that a whole lot, until I got too old,” he said.
He also enjoys fishing and said he used to fish for catfish with a group of five or six local men near Cherokee Dam two or three nights a week from October to January.
Without the responsibility of keeping up with all of the properties in Grainger County, Morgan may be able to find time to spend assessing the best fishing spots.